Football's 10 Best South America-to-Europe Transitions

Mohamed Al-HendyCorrespondent IMay 23, 2012

Football's 10 Best South America-to-Europe Transitions

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    With the 2011-12 football season over or drawing to a close across Europe, clubs all over the continent are getting ready for the beginning of transfer season.

    Among all the big names set to transfer clubs this summer, one in particular stands out: Lucas Moura, who reportedly had a bid of up to €40 million rejected from Chelsea this past Tuesday.

    With interest from nearly every major European club and massive transfer figures being thrown, the big question is this: Will Lucas be able to adjust quickly to his new surroundings? Will he get playing time at his new club, be it Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid or another club?

    Luckily for Lucas, he is not the first nor the last South American to make the switch to Europe. In fact, thousands of footballers have already taken the path he looks set to take this summer.

    In the coming slides, we'll highlight the 10 best players to take such a path. 

Ronaldo

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    It is a testament to the quality of the players on this list that Ronaldo is probably neither the most recognizable nor the best player. 

    Even so, he is one of football's greatest legends, and a player who will never be forgotten by those who watched him.

    Ronaldo burst onto the football scene first with Cruzeiro, the club that signed him after boyhood club Flamengo reject him. He quickly repaid the club for their trust, scoring 12 goals in his first 14 games for the club and leading them to their first Copa de Brasil.

    After earning selection to the Selecao at just the age of 17, Ronaldo made the smart move to PSV, forgoing Europe's bigger clubs for the opportunity to develop his game at the advice of Brazilian legend Romario (who himself features next on this list).

    Ronaldo scored 35 goals in 36 games in first season, and followed that up with 19 goals in 21 games. This sparked the interest of Barcelona, who signed him and were handsomely rewarded with 47 goals in 49 games—in a single season.

    Ronaldo's club career would never hit the same individual heights again, however, Ronaldo still had a number of good seasons with Inter Milan and Real Madrid, and he won a good deal of silverware over that spell as well.

    Ronaldo is probably best remembered for his 2002 World Cup performance when he cast away his injury problems to win his first real World Cup (he did not play in 1994 despite being called up).

Romario

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    Before Ronaldo, there was Romario, although it is a testament to Romario's legendary quality, fitness and determination that he managed to extend his career long enough to overlap with Ronaldo for many seasons.

    Unlike Ronaldo, Romario's "incubation period" in Brazil lasted for four seasons, during which Romario's quality became known around the world. He scored 124 goals for Vasco de Gama in 194 games—all before the age of 23.

    Romario's transition to the European stage was seamless. He scored 129 goals in 142 games for PSV, and followed that up with a terrific debut season for Barcelona, scoring 30 league games in 33 games.

    At this point, Romario's career hit its peak. He'd won league titles with all three of his clubs picked up a few scoring honors and after winning the 1994 World Cup, he was rightfully named 1994 World Player of the Year.

    But just as Ronaldo's career tailed off a bit after he left Barcelona, so did Romario's. He returned to Flamengo to have two fruitful goal-filled seasons, and returned two more times later, but between those spells were a few poor seasons with Valencia, which effectively ended Romario's European career.

    Though he would hop clubs year after year afterward, his goal-scoring touch went well into his 40s, which is unheard of for a football player.

    He is one of only two players (him and Pele) who can claim to have scored 1,000 goals in his career, although such claims are always controversial because of the variety of goals counted.

Lionel Messi

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    Brazilians aren't the only players who made smooth transitions from South America to Europe. 

    Lionel Messi never actually played first-team football in Argentina; rather, he was groomed by Newell's Old Boys from 1995 to 2000 before moving to Barcelona to join Barca's youth system in exchange for growth hormone deficiency treatment that his family could not otherwise afford.

    At just the age of 24, Lionel Messi is considered by most to be the world's best player, and has more trophies and honors than even the most famous of football legends.

    Five La Liga titles, three Champions League titles, three FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D'Or awards. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms to the quantity of trophies in Messi's possession.

    He just keeps on getting better individually too. His goal tally has risen from 16 to 38 to 47 to 53 and finally 72 this past season. Can he surpass that record-breaking total next season? We'll see.

Diego Maradona

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    Just as Ronaldo was Romario's heir, Messi was very much the heir of the great Diego Maradona.

    Maradona quickly established himself as a star in his homeland; 143 goals in 207 games ensured he was quickly viewed as one of the best talents ever to be produced in Argentina. It wasn't until Maradona took his talents to Barcelona that he set himself on the path to greatness though.

    Maradona's Barcelona years were actually not that impressive. He scored 38 goals in 58 games, but he only won two league cups. However, his performances opened the door for a move to Napoli, where he became a legend.

    At Napoli, Maradona won two Serie A titles, the only two that Napoli have ever won in their long history. More importantly though, he became one of the trickiest, cleverest strikers to play the game, and that trickery won his country a World Cup in 1986 and a runner-up finish in 1990.

Javier Zanetti

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    If we're speaking strictly about how smooth the transition was for the players on this list, then Javier Zanetti is easily No. 1.

    After all, since leaving Banfield at the age of 21, Zanetti has enjoyed 17 excellent seasons with the same club, Inter Milan, and has been captain from 1999 on. His consistency has earned him 145 caps for the Argentinian national team, and Zanetti has shown no signs of being done yet.

    He is blessed with remarkable fitness and physical durability; he's never played less than 39 games in a season, and even at the age of 38 has been running the length of the pitch past defenders and midfielders almost half his age.

    To date, he has played almost 900 club matches, and almost 150 more international matches. During that time, his individual awards have not been many, but he's won 16 pieces of silverware with Inter Milan, and there will likely be more to come in the coming seasons.

Roberto Carlos

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    It was a toss-up between Roberto Carlos and Cafu for this spot, but I chose Roberto Carlos for his long trophy-filled club career with Real Madrid.

    Though Roberto Carlos never had the opportunity to become captain of Real Madrid like Javier Zanetti at Inter, he was a mainstay on the team for 11 seasons, winning four La Liga titles and three Champions League titles.

    His goal-scoring ability, especially from free-kicks, is what made Roberto Carlos particularly unique. At the height of his powers, scoring nine goals in a season from the left-back position was no problem for Carlos.

    Like many of the legends on this list, Roberto Carlos' legendary status helped him prolong his career until the age of 39.

Ronaldinho

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    The next two players on this list are still playing today.

    Though Ronaldinho's glory days are in his past, no one can forget the time when Ronaldinho was dominating football as the undisputed best player in the world in 2004 and 2005.

    He won the Champions League and two La Liga titles with Barcelona after making an excellent transition from life with Gremio to life with Paris Saint-Germain in France.

    Like every other Brazilian on this list, Ronaldinho also won a World Cup, completing his list of personal, club and international honors.

    The only disappointment with Ronaldinho is how quickly he faded after proving seemingly unstoppable from 2003 to 2007. His last season at Barca was hampered by injuries, and after he was dumped by Pep Guardiola, he never recovered.

    He has, however, recovered some of his former glory at Flamengo and seems to be ending his career on a positive note.

Rivaldo

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    Like Romario, it seems that Rivaldo is unwilling to quit. His desire to continue playing the game has taken him to Greece, Uzbekistan, back to Brazil and now to Angola.

    But it's important to remember that for Rivaldo, it all started with an excellent debut season with Deportivo de La Coruna, which paved the way for a transfer to Barcelona, where Rivaldo would become a legend.

    Like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Romario, leaving Barcelona meant leaving the highest point of his career for Rivaldo. He struggled at Milan, and his competitive club career came to an end around that time as well.

    Rivaldo's club career though, is not what he will be remembered for. For Brazil fans, watching Rivaldo and Ronaldo link up at the 2002 World Cup will always be the enduring memory of at least one of these two stars.

    Ironically, it was right after that World Cup that Rivaldo's club career crumbled.

Mario Kempes

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    We close with two less-known Argentinian legends.

    Kempes was the only foreign-based player called up by coach Cesar Luis Menotti before the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. The lanky forward had been top scorer in Spain's Primera Liga in each of the past two seasons and was determined to show on home soil that he could deliver against the best on the sport's greatest stage.

    In 1974, at 20 years of age, he failed to get on the score sheet in West Germany and after the first-round group stage in 1978, his name was still missing among goalscorers in the tournament.

    But things would change dramatically when Argentina's team was forced out of Buenos Aires because of ending up as runners-up in their group. Argentina's new venue for the second-phase matches was Rosario, the city where Kempes' career took off in the early 1970s. It was here that "El Matador" found the goalscoring form that made him top scorer in the tournament.

    First he sank Poland with both goals in a 2-0 win, then two more against Peru in a 6-0 demolition before he returned to Buenos Aires and the finals as a changed man. Kempes scored two more against the Netherlands and assisted Bertoni for Argentina's third in the 3-1 win. Needless to say, Kempes mopped up every major personal award after the finals.

    In Europe he had two successful spells at Valencia (1976-81 & 1982-84). He helped them win the Spanish Cup in 1979 along with the European Cupwinners Cup and the European Super Cup the following year. Kempes made 247 appearances and scored 146 goals in all competitions for Valencia.

    In 1981, he moved back to Argentina to play for River Plate—winning an Argentinian championship with them before heading back to Spain in time for the World Cup in 1982. It turned out to be a disappointing tournament for Argentina and Kempes. No goals for "El Matador" and Argentina bowed out in the second phase.

    Kempes later moved to a smaller Spanish club, Hercules, before winding down his career in Austrian football for various clubs.

Omar Sivori

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    From Juventus' official website:

    When considering world class players throughout the history of football, Omar Sivori’s name must be included. In his time, the striker displayed just as much ability as Pelé (single-handedly inspiring Juventus to a friendly win over Santos, see news).

    Sivori was a football great and will go down in Juve’s history. His signing was one of the astute transfer market dealings which saw the Bianconeri display their title intentions. The striker was President Umberto Agnelli’s first purchase, plucked from River Plate at the age of 21, following Renato Cesarini’s recommendation.

    It was an expensive foray into the market (a record back in 1957) but the gamble more than paid off. Sivori formed a three-pronged attack alongside John Charles - who joined that summer from Leeds - and Giampiero Boniperti, resulting in devastating displays and reviving the spirit of the Quinquennio side.

    With his weaving runs, dribbling – at times leaving opposition defenders trailing in his wake – and goals (167 in 253 games), he made a vital contribution to the side winning three titles and three Italian Cups. In the eight seasons spent in Torino, Sivori returned Juventus to greatness and not just in Italy. He scored the decisive goal which saw the Bianconeri clinch their first ever victory away at Real Madrid in 1962. The striker also became the first Juve player to win the Golden Ball, achieved in 1961.

    Sivori left Juventus in 1965 to end his football career in Naples. He remained close to the Bianconeri, and later took up the role of South American scout. His early death on 17th February 2005 left a great emptiness in the hearts of Juve fans. Also in younger supporters who had only seen him play through footage from that era.